FILMMAKING AS SPIRITUAL PRACTICE AND MINISTRY
by Macky Alston
Imagine this: for two years you have been filming a minister with cancer. She is convinced she has a long prophetic ministry ahead of her. She believes that, for God, anything is possible and, because she has this sense of call, she is sure to lick her cancer. As the months tick by, you film her speaking with power and faith from this place of pain, confusion and suffering. And then she dies. It appears that she was wrong, that her call was cut short. You edit your film. It is watched on television by millions in the U.S. and abroad. You tour with the film and listen to this minister speak from beyond the grave to the widest range of audiences. The tour continues. The film is rebroadcast to this day. She was not wrong. Her ministry is alive and well, thanks to your work.
Imagine this: you have been making a film for three years hand-to-mouth, believing that God wants you to make it and that God will help you do so against all odds. You have borrowed all you can. Your crew of eight has been alerted and knows that the project will shut down if money doesn’t show up in the next 24 hours. You cannot sleep. You cannot speak. You have played your hand. In your mailbox that evening, you find a check with no attached note from a movie star you solicited as a joke. The check is for exactly the amount you need to proceed.
And imagine this: you are showing a film about the faltering and flowering faith lives of a handful of New Yorkers—an African American Muslim, an atheist Jew, a gay Christian, a born-again Buddhist—at a rural college to an audience of one thousand white Lutheran teenagers from church youth groups across the state of Minnesota. You are asking yourself how it is that your film was chosen for this audience. You are wondering what kind of vegetables they have prepared to throw. Discussion is rich after the film, which feels like an act of grace, but the breathtaking conversations happen after most of the audience has left: with the boy who until that moment was convinced he was going to hell for being gay; the girl who was convinced she was crazy for having lost her faith; the gaggle of blond children who had never met a Muslim, had only seen them as terrorists in the movies and on the news, and, until your film, had been convinced they were plain evil.
Making and presenting a documentary is, in my experience, a religious experience. At a screening last week at Harvard Divinity School of my last documentary, Questioning Faith: Confessions of a Seminarian, a woman in the audience asked if documentary filmmaking is a spiritual practice. I had never called it such, but as I began to reflect on the process of making a documentary film—of tracking down the sacred in everyday life, sifting through hours of footage for truth and meaning, and then holding it up for the world to appreciate—I knew it to be so. In Questioning Faith, I explore how people reconcile faith with suffering and, in the course of the film, as I witness the heroic power of people to choose life in the face of death, I move in my own beliefs from great doubt to deep faith. The woman in the audience likened that movement to Job’s articulation of his conversion to faith: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you.” I have indeed found filmmaking, the act and art of seeing, to be a profound spiritual practice.
Filmmaking is not easy and confronts one with constant ethical challenges. It is hard to justify spending so much money on some idea you think might be good, but you know might not be. The moral quagmires are endless and ultimately impossible to escape clean. You observe people in your films believing that, by participating in a film, their lives will be transformed—that the film will make them stars, right the wrongs of their past, end the isolation they have known for decades. You know that all you can manage is to do your best to be kind and tell their stories responsibly, but you see how your films do change people’s lives—their stature in their communities and their sense of self—and it’s not always for the better. You see the ugliness in yourself. You harbor secret hope for dramatic twists in lives and history that will make your film come to life, often to the detriment of the people being filmed. You pray for guidance, and pray also that at the end of the day, their fates are not in your hands, but in God’s. Or at least I do.
In the best of all worlds, making documentary films makes you more honest—it forces you into worlds and situations you might never have known. You might live with a poor Muslim family in Harlem for a year. You might tell your Victorian grandmother you are gay on film after a lifetime of nuanced mutual deception.
And documentaries can change the world. The history of documentary is in large part the history of trying to make films that make a difference. Whether the topic is war and peace, corporate corruption, immigration, racism, homelessness, and most recently a McDonald’s diet, there are countless films that have served as the catalyst to changes of heart and of policy.
It wasn’t until I learned about this tradition, that I realized that my sense of dual call—to art-making and to justice ministry—might be integrated. Since childhood, I have perceived this vocational dichotomy. In college and at seminary, I careened back and forth between the study of religion and the study of art, always assuming that I would have to pick one vocational track at the expense of the other. It was only when I took a job on a documentary film, purely for the meager wage it offered, that I awakened to the possibilities of this work. To do it well, all my resources are required. All my limbs are exercised. And the world looks more vivid to my eyes from this road than from any other professional vantage point I have known.
Having made a documentary on faith and having taught courses on documentary film about religion to seminarians, I became interested in the specific category of documentary film on religion and spirituality—a grossly under-represented genre within the mainstream media. This prompted me to join the staff of Auburn Theological Seminary last year to assist in launching Auburn Media. A division of Auburn’s Center for Multifaith Education, this exciting new venture is charged with the mission of promoting, cultivating, and supporting programming about religion, spirituality, and ethics on radio and television.
There are extraordinary films that have been made over the last century about religious life that are largely forgotten and there are equally extraordinary films coming out each year that are often overlooked. I recommend the following as teaching tools, as art, and as windows into the most intimate human experience:
Time for Burning
This Academy award-winning documentary tells the story of the white, middle-class Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, which in 1966 struggled to reach out to the black community in their city. The congregation was divided between those who wanted to accept social change in the form of racial integration and those who thought the time was not right to build bridges across racial lines. A Time for Burning is exceptional for its honest depiction of how difficult it is for faith-based communities with the best intentions to cross-cultural divides.
What some have referred to as “prayer on film,” Baraka is a masterful cinematographic circumnavigation of the globe that meditates, through image and sound, upon themes of creation, civilization, and humankind’s apparent determination to self-destruct.
Nominated for “Best Direction in a Documentary” by the Australian Film Institute in 2000, Chasing Buddha portrays the life of Tibetan Buddhist nun, Robina Courtin, and her work with prisoners on death row in the Kentucky State Penitentiary. Courtin faced considerable hardship in her own life before she became a Buddhist in 1977. The film follows Courtin’s continued quest to find peace in the midst of a world of pain. Chasing Buddha powerfully represents the manner in which lives can be transformed by spiritual practice and through connection with—and commitment to—others.
Drums of Winter (1988)
This quietly beautiful film explores the traditional movement, music,and religion of the Yupik Eskimo people of Emmonak, a remote village at the mouth of the Yukon River on the Bering Sea coast. A rare dance language lies at the heart of Yupik Eskimo spiritual and social life; The Drums of Winter gives an intimate look at this art, of which most have never caught a glimpse. This film offers an exquisite representation of the resilience of an indigenous people and their religious practice in the face of over a hundred years of colonialism and westernization.
Essene starkly and exactingly documents daily life in a Benedictine monastery as its members attempt to resolve the inevitable conflicts between personal needs and the institutional and organizational priorities of the community. Essene is a masterful documentary made by one of the great filmmakers of our time. It offers a beautiful and rare window into a cloistered religious community in which its members have vowed to share their resources and commit their lives to service and faith.
Hiding and Seeking: Faith and
Hiding and Seeking tells the story of a father who tries to awaken his adult Orthodox Jewish sons to the dangers posed by religious leaders who preach intolerance of the “other” and encourage the creation of impenetrable barriers between “us” and “them.” To broaden their insular views, the father takes his sons on a highly charged journey to Poland to meet the Catholic farmers who risked their lives to hide the sons’ grandfather during the Holocaust. Hiding and Seeking is noteworthy for its daring exploration of the complex dynamics of survival and resistance, hatred, forgiveness and healing.
of a Flame: A Documentary Portrait of the Catonsville Nine (2001)
Investigation of a Flame is an intimate look at a ragtag band of religious activists—the Catonsville Nine, which included the renowned brothers, Fathers Phillip and Daniel Berrigan—who, in a poetic act of civil disobedience against the Vietnam War, incinerated service records. The film explores this protest in the context of today’s times in which foes of Middle East peace agreements, abortion and technology resort to violence to access the public imagination. Investigation of a Flame artfully examines how religious conviction can lead even the most unlikely citizens to radical action.
of the Jews (2000)
Utilizing Hollywood movies, 1950's educational films, personal home movies and religious films spanning the history of cinema, Jay Rosenblatt, a Jew growing up in a largely Christian community and culture, depicts with humor and pathos his childhood fear of Jesus Christ. King of the Jews is exceptional for its powerful depiction of childhood religious and identity formation, its intriguing look at Christian anti-Semitism in the US, and its creative expression of the universal need for forgiveness and healing.
Faith: Confessions of a Seminarian (2001)
Questioning Faith follows my quest, while completing a graduate degree in theology and working as a hospital chaplain, to understand how people reconcile faith with great suffering. Upon the death of a seminary class-mate and close friend, my own faith headed into a tailspin. In Questioning Faith, I follow a handful of people representing a wide range of religious beliefs through their own faith struggles in order to witness how others makes sense of suffering.
Reincarnation of Kensur Rinpoche (1991)
The Reincarnation of Kensur Rinpoche follows the Tibetan servant of a deceased rinpoche of great renown on his quest to determine whether or not a poor four-year-old boy hundreds of miles away is in fact his beloved former master’s current incarnation. [Editor’s note—Rinpoche: Tibetan, lit. “great jewel” or “great precious one”; honorific applied to reincarnate lamas (spiritual teachers) and other highly respected persons]
A Prayer for the Enemy (1995)
In a deeply personal and lyrical manner, Satya: A Prayer for the Enemy offers the testimonies of Tibetan nuns who for years have been staging demonstrations for independence against brutal imprisonment. This moving film explores the continued religious oppression and human rights abuses in occupied Tibet and the struggles of women who are spurred by their religious beliefs to life-threatening service on a daily basis. Satya beautifully portrays the resilience with which these modest women face down even the most intimidating foes.
Smith Family (2002)
The Smith Family is the account of a Mormon family's struggle to stay together after discovering that their father and husband is secretly gay, has had numerous affairs with men, and has developed AIDS. This film demonstrates the power of love and acceptance in the face of the temptation to judge and condemn. It powerfully testifies to the underlying themes of the Mormon faith—compassion, forgiveness and service—while simultaneously representing the complexities involved in claiming allegiance to a religious tradition and questioning many of its tenets. The Smith Family offers an extraordinarily intimate portrait of one family’s attempt to wrestle with the complex dynamics of religion and AIDS.
At the end of my film Questioning Faith, as I receive my Masters of Divinity diploma, I declare my intention to answer a call, whether it be bringing people together through film or some more traditional form of ministry—or both. Although I have pursued parish work and esteem that call, I found it impossible to abandon the art and practice of documentary filmmaking. This is my ministry.
Editor’s note: Most of the films listed above are to be included in an upcoming film series entitled Faith on Film organized by Auburn Media and New York University’s Center for Media and Religion. For more information about these films or other matters regarding non-fiction media about religion, spirituality and ethics, contact Macky Alston at Auburn Media: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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